Halo 3: ODST’s waypoint system makes it my favorite Halo game

Given that it initially launched on the Xbox 360 back in 2009, Halo 3: ODST has actually stayed a unique entry in the sci-fi shooter Halo series — and according to designers who dealt with the video game at the time, that was totally the point.

According to Joseph Staten, ODST’s imaginative director and lead author, the core advancement group that dealt with the video game had actually initially been put together to work on Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s cancelled Halo Chronicles. “When that project fell apart, we were left with this really experienced core team of guys, all of whom had been around since [Halo: Combat Evolved],” Staten informed Kotaku back in 2009. With the dissolution of Halo Chronicles and Halo Reach currently well into production, Staten and the rest of the group chose to produce a brand-new entry in the Halo universe — one that would penetrate at otherwise neglected corners of its world through the point of view of somebody besides franchise hero Master Chief.

The outcome was Halo 3: ODST, a first-person survival shooter that happens in the very same period as Halo 2. It’s embeded in the ruins of the East African metropolitan area of New Mombasa, played from the point of view of a non-enhanced unique ops shock cannon fodder entrusted with discovering their lost staff member in the after-effects of the city’s profession. The video game is a suppressed, down-to-earth investigator story in a deserted city filled with spread patrol teams of Covenant soldiers prepared to tear the gamer apart if they’re not mindful. It’s likewise my preferred video game in the Halo series.

In Halo 3: ODST, the waypoint system includes environmental messages like “slow down”

Image: Bungie by means of Polygon

There’s a lot to enjoy about the video game, from its free-roaming open-world setting that enabled gamers to recognize the experience of battling the Covenant in a futuristic city very first glimpsed in Halo 2’s E3 2003 demonstration, to its focus on tactical stealth and survival rather than the series’ more offensive-driven battle loop, to its moody, noir-inflected, orchestral jazz rating. However what sustains as my preferred part of Halo 3: ODST is something that has actually never ever rather been duplicated by any other Halo video game, or actually any other video game I’ve come across, which is the narrative style of ODST as translucented its diegetic waypoint system.

The opening minutes of Halo 3: ODST placed players in the role of “the Rookie,” a silent protagonist and a recent addition to a shock trooper team. Awakening inside a drop pod that crashed into a building following the Covenant slipspace rupture seen in Halo 2, the Rookie falls from the pod and is forced to heal themselves and fend off a group of Brute soldiers and Grunt underlings. After you defeat these enemies, your heads-up display will direct you to interface with the Superintendent — an artificial intelligence responsible for New Mombasa’s urban infrastructure — in order to gain a better grasp of where you are and what happened to your team.

Once you interact with a nearby payphone that begins ringing on its own, a waypoint compass will appear at the top of your HUD, and an interactive map of the city-hub will become accessible through the game’s menu. This waypoint directs you to the first of several artifacts left behind by members of your ODST team, prompting playable flashback missions as seen through the perspective of one of your four teammates. But that’s not all. As you make your way through the city-hub to your destination, something strange starts happening to the environment around you.

Several of the video billboards throughout the city begin to change, as if reacting to your presence. While at first these appear to be innocuous environmental details, it slowly begins to set in that these supposedly automated traffic warnings and directions are actually attempts by the Superintendent AI to communicate with and guide you through the city, alerting you to roaming Covenant patrols and alternate routes to safely avoid detection. While this is a cool detail in and of itself, it’s even more fascinating that the Superintendent AI also directs you to collectible audio logs housed in phones and kiosks scattered across the city, each of which tells a side story centered on a young New Mombasan girl named Sadie with a powerful bond to the Superintendent AI. While the missions of Halo 3: ODST are experienced through the perspective of the Rookie and his squadmates, the cutscenes that set up those missions are relayed through the perspective of the Superintendent AI, who remains an unspoken yet ever-present character within the game’s world.

Halo 3: ODST’s diegetic waypoint system tells the player to “detour” down a hallway

Image: Bungie via Polygon

Replaying through Halo 3: ODST recently, I found myself impressed by how thoroughly the Superintendent’s presence has been woven into the environment of New Mombasa, and I wondered why so few games since have found a way of incorporating waypoint markers and directions into their worldbuilding. The closest contemporary to Halo 3: ODST’s Superintendent that I can think of are the ethereal messages that materialize around the island of Blackreef in Arkane Studios’ Deathloop, guiding the character Colt on his journey to kill the Visionaries and break the time loop that traps him there. Aside from that, most waypoint systems in first-person games exist as either non-diegetic aspects of the game’s user interface or comically obvious systems like the glowing green arrow that points the player in the “right” direction in 2013’s Bioshock Infinite. As much as I would love to see other developers take a page from Halo 3: ODST’s design by crafting storytelling mechanics that incentive exploration and attention to environmental design, I also recognize that much of what I love about the game’s narrative design is an intrinsic byproduct of the particular story Bungie was trying to tell through that game — which only further emphasizes why Halo 3: ODST is my absolute preferred Halo game.

Fans of Halo haven’t seen anything in the series rather like Halo 3: ODST in the 12 years since its release. While 2010’s Halo: Reach was a prequel, it was also Bungie’s swan song from the series, and subsequent entries produced by 343 Industries (with the exception of Halo Wars 2) have largely centered around the post-Halo 3 story arc of series protagonist Master Chief. Whether there will ever be an opportunity for a future side story-like entry in the Halo series similar to Halo 3: ODST is still an open question. Until then, the video game stays an outstanding and deservedly admired entry in the franchise, loaded with small touches that are still worth keeping in mind, valuing, and gaining from.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.